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February 2024 Feature: Arisa White

Updated: Feb 11

Arisa White is a Cave Canem fellow, Sarah Lawrence College alumna, an MFA graduate from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and the author of several award-winning poetry collections including Who’s Your Daddy.


Arisa White is an associate professor of English and Creative Writing at Colby College. She is the author of Who’s Your Daddy, co-editor of Home Is Where You Queer Your Heart, and co-author of Biddy Mason Speaks Up, the second book in the Fighting for Justice Series for young readers. Her poetry is widely published, and her collections have been nominated for an NAACP Image Award, Lambda Literary Award, and have won the Per Diem Poetry Prize, Maine Literary Award, Nautilus Book Award, an Independent Publisher Book Award, and Golden Crown Literary Award.  As the creator of the Beautiful Things Project, Arisa curates poetic collaborations that are rooted in Black queer women’s ways of knowing. She is a Cave Canem fellow and serves on the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance Community Advisory Board. Currently in development with composer Jessica Jones, Arisa is working on Post Pardon: The Opera. Visit Arisa's website for more.




it takes me a while to step


from your cobalt stare

to lose the spotlight of your love

is a cloddish stampede from nowhere

 

i am not as cool as a swore

this back is not called an avant-garde

you are free and you are my favorite

and it’s a parasympathetic response

 

every time you appear in my dreams

you want medicine

you are a tunnel’s dark trope

and the wind passing through is justice

 

but the deepest stab thrusts the most

and I concur I am a visitor

more than happy to hold the mirror

pinky up, you promised we were flames

 

burn it to the bottom

handsome boi, your nipples a slow-erase

then you with moat and mortar

and wounds with victims in their mouths

 

arachnid and simple-breasted like a ball of yarn

she came first, whereas she came tumbling

and chained to a quartet of the same—

tatas ill-tempered and lightning-flavored

 

the memorial of their touch daybreaking

and disloyal, and although my knees would

gladly suffer morning’s copper cut,

standing up for myself is a soul ambulation





In a reasonable amount of time

 

Text me back within the hour, otherwise,

you make a bad bitch feel like grits without taste,

a city without its early morning reprise of joggers.

 

Born from blunt and smoke, you’re a familiar

trick I play on myself. On this return,

I have more tools than a screwdriver.

 

This is my seventh transmutation.

You inside of me is the waterfall’s surrender,

the applause of cedars, all the sway of cattails.

 

I have a list and a heart beating too fast for you.

You were never in my orbit and you called me back.

I’m speechless my first time in space.

 

I am in July and you are in June.

I fit you into these fifteen minutes before meeting

about federal grants and their specific guidelines.

 

Drop my croissant, pay the clerk no mind,

and tap the green phone. Leave my debit card

to sit in the luxury of your voice—

 

tell me how you feel with a verb and horizon.

I need depth to secure my succulents.

You, my dear, are so handsome, I’m spring.

 

I’ve lost the ground I stand on.

Spend weeks suspended in a wind tunnel,

in a blue noise, that keeps me from autumn.





I’ll kiss you in the ante meridian and my latitudes


take kissing over settler colonialism any day.

I keep finding your Jack Russell in my curl signature,

snarled and percussive. Nonetheless, dew-stricken

petals wait for me to forget-you-not. It is true—

this summer shower is the devil in me. You’ve gone

outside without an umbrella or zipper-front London Fog.

Your absence presents like a pilgrim in pumps.

There’s no question I will forfeit my superlatives.

In the cul-de-sac, my tall drink of water, your bust

on this Tuesday-Sunday. I look at art and think about

you until “I See Red:” on oil, acrylic, paper, newspaper,

and fabric on canvas, these mountains give the fireworks

perspective: love needs a new vehicle and time to lose on you.





I can’t relate at that league,


my heart is solely incorporated,

me and me in a Cape in Maine.

 

Guests are privately undressed

in this hard-broke space, you are

not relative to this unpacking.

 

Frighten to sore your eyes

with my belly, I have no model

for the vulnerability of being seen.

 

Public funk of a dead thing

growing again and who knows

when I’ll arrive redolent.

 

I’m wet behind the ears,

adultly infant and driving automatic

but willing to get there.

 

I’ve pleased so hard, I’ve lied.

It’s all in my dysregulation,

the vulgate and goldenrod.

 

I can educate you on apricity.

Heat superficial and distant,

we’ll never strike a match.

 

My god’s forgiveness is transactional

and the privileges of my flesh

means I ghost easily.

 

Beware of trolls who message you

on the first of a new year—

I had no bridge for you to cross.





Best way out is through

 

I’m pulling further from your porch

 

not turning around, I’m moving toward grief

 

a long thorn stuck between my knuckles for days

 

every fight is a reach to the bone

 

disappointment can’t settle me into prayer

 

what this deep affection has done

 

—in the face of your density—

 

is show the saboteur moonwalking

 

I have no qualms about erasing God’s sandprints

 

it’s ancestral to blast these moody pop songs

 

fashion a belt to keep my cargo from exposing my junk

 

every pocket filled to the stitch with California poppies

 

three drops daily with water to flower

 

sirens go by and I’m reminded I’m not Thoreau

 

I eat shoulder-to-shoulder with the fear of my rejection

 

each owl is excited by my presence and terrifies me

 

where’s the tavern of our first kiss?

 

you glimmered brighter when not defensive

 

held my hand and our hands bridged between us

 

all was broken and eagled into song

 

we treated anything anybody said as a collective utterance





THE INTERVIEW

This interview was conducted between Jae Nichelle and Arisa White on January 30, 2024.


The poems you’ve shared are full of tenderness and longing. Reading them, I felt like they were working together to pull me into a greater story. Can you talk about the relationship these poems have to each other—why you pulled them together, specifically?


The poet and editor Kate Angus once told me that I write heartbreakingly beautiful poems. And so I’m embracing that: how much can a heart break? What emerges from the breaks? What does that emergence sound like? How does it feel? What is actually breaking? 


Essentially, it’s about love and loss. Falling in and out of love. Being with the descent and the insight that comes from such vulnerability. Recognizing that love in the present is repairing some lovelessness of the past. Like some spiritual polycule. It’s so peopled, our love. 


In “Best way out is through,” I was so entranced by the line “sirens go by and I’m reminded I’m not Thoreau.” Ancestry is invoked earlier in the poem, and it makes me curious to know what writers you see as part of your lineage. Who do you learn from?


I wrote that line while I was at Hedgebrook this past July. Sitting by the pond, surrounded by all this green, with an owl at my back, and nothing about where I was felt mechanical. And then, in the distance, sirens. The machines. The man. And the flesh is activated in a psychosocial sort of way, and all of a sudden, I feel separate from my surroundings. I feel an unbelonging. Writers and poets who have schooled me on my belonging are Toni Morrison, Medbh McGuckian, Ai, and Audre Lorde. 


Can you share any pivotal moments in your writing journey that significantly influenced your perspective and approach to poetry?


I interned with the dance company Urban Bush Women (UBW) during my undergraduate years at Sarah Lawrence College. UBW held a summer institute in Florida one year I was interning, and I was invited to go. The institute comprised emerging dancers, master teachers, and scholars, and it was a beautifully intense time of movement-making. During one session, when the artistic director Jawole Willa Jo Zollar was working with a group of dancers, she called me to the stage to write a poem to accompany the choreography. I watched them rehearse for 10 minutes, and then inspiration struck. I remember everyone, Jawole included, being impressed with the evocative quality of the poem written on the fly. This moment was when I realized I wanted my poetry to collaborate with other art forms, to move beyond the page, and be an embodied experience. 


You’re writing an opera! Can you share more about what goes into being a librettist? 


A lot of patience goes into it. Excellent collaborators. Institutional and philanthropic support. This is my first time writing a libretto. The biggest hurdle was giving myself the permission to do so–to step into something new using the tools of poetry to guide me as I find my footing in this new genre. It was helpful to research other black poets who have written libretti, which provided me with a lineage and literary community to ground and see myself in. Langston Hughes and June Jordan both wrote operas. So working from that historical literary point of view, instead of feeling like an imposter within opera’s elite airs, I could imagine and know myself as a librettist. Turning to our contemporary and current times, there are many black poets who have crossed over into the opera/librettist world: Tracy K. Smith, Thulani Davis, Douglas Kearney, Vievee Francis, Samiya Bashir, and Nikkey Finney to name a few. 


As a writer of many genres and styles, how does your creative process change when working on starkly different projects? 


My process doesn’t change that much; the basic ingredients still remain. Research, writing, and revising. If I’m working in a different form, I research that form, acquaint myself with the different writers who work in the form, and I seek editorial advice from those who work actively in the form. Often, I open the creative process to include collaborators, so that requires clear communication, a willingness to let go, and the desire to see the work broaden with, and through, the creative genius of those involved.


The Beautiful Things Project is a fascinating initiative. What is one of the most memorable collaborations from this project so far?


In the Fall of 2022, I worked with a few students from Colby College as background vocalists and my colleague and musician Jose Martinez to create a dramatic reading of my poetic memoir Who’s Your Daddy at the Versant Power Astronomy Center & Jordan Planetarium in Orono, Maine. I worked with a small team at the Planetarium to create visuals and animations on different skies. Constellations, astrology, and “the stars”--just generally–are recurring themes in Who’s Your Daddy. So it made perfect sense to do a reading in the planetarium!


What are you streaming these days, if anything?


I just finished up AMBITIONS on Hulu. I love a shady and bitchy Robin Givens–she was a bougie-snot even then in Head of the Class! You can see how ambition is such supremacy at times. “I’m ambitious,” becomes a way to excuse bad human behavior, to form insecure and anxious attachments that keep everyone in a transactional mode, and love stays in short supply. 


If a museum about anything could exist, what’s a super specific museum you would like to visit?


A museum of teeth. Teeth from different species. Teeth inventions. I’m currently going through a year-long process of a dental restorative procedure and I’m thinking about teeth. Gum health. Fake teeth. How white is too white for teeth? How much attention, time, and resources do I want to give to maintaining iPod white teeth? If our culture wasn’t so vain about our teeth, could I still be a professor with a missing front tooth? I’m already navigating the interlocking oppressions of black, woman, lesbian, . . ., and to not have a proper set of teeth . . . I’m looking forward to my senior years when I have reached the next-next level of gives-no-fucks and I’m bravely toothless and laughing out loud. 


What is a perfect food to you?


A bowl of soup, any kind. (Lol, especially after my previous response.)


How can people support you?


Buy my books and then send me D​Ms telling me which poem you enjoyed. To help bring​ Post Pardon​: The Opera, to ​its premiere, ​donate to the project postpardon.org/support


Name another Black woman writer people should follow. 


Anastacia-Renee


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Torch Literary Arts is a 501(c)3 nonprofit established to publish and promote creative writing by Black women. We publish contemporary writing by experienced and emerging writers alike. Programs include the Wildfire Reading Series, writing workshops, and retreats.


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